I invite all of you, at this moment to take a deep breath. In through your nose and out your mouth. Feel the cool air rush in through your nostrils and the warm air move over your tongue and past your lips. Once more. Ahhh…life.
That is what this passage from John’s gospel is about, finding life and being sent back out into it. Year after year, on the Sunday after Easter, this text keeps showing up to haunt us, threatening our Easter joy with the story of the one who will be forever known as “Doubting Thomas.” And yet, I don’t think that the heart of this passage is about doubt and laying guilt upon those who struggle to believe…I think this passage is about giving people what they need for life and then sending them out into that life with blessing.
Here’s the scene: It is Sunday night, a good twelve hours after Jesus’ resurrection and the disciples are hiding out in a locked-up house paralyzed by fear not knowing what to do next. Now just a couple of hours earlier, Jesus met up with Mary near the tomb, and Mary came running back to camp, yelling to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord, I have seen the Lord.” Only that wasn’t enough for these disciples. They still packed up there stuff and headed for the house on the hill, where they think they might be safe. And then just as night falls, and as the disciples take turns pressing their ear up to the locked door, listening for footsteps of danger, Jesus slides himself underneath the door, and whispers to them, “Peace be with you.” As the disciples’ eyes widen to the size of saucer plates, wondering “Who just said that?” Jesus does one of the earthiest things he’s ever done, other than combining spit and mud as medicine for the eyes, of course. Still smelling of sour old wine, he breathes on them. Here the words of Scripture again, “When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” He breathes on them, pulling the fear right out of their lungs and filling them with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, that creative wind that moved across the waters in the beginning, now rushed into their lungs and bringing peace to their hearts. If you have ever watched a sleeping baby, you know how holy and precious each breath is. Watching that little torso, covered in a Sesame street themed onesie, rise and fall which each breath of life. If you have ever watched a loved one approach death, you know how holy and precious each breath is. Watching that old torso, covered in a polka-dot hospital gown, rise and fall, wondering which one will be the last. Jesus breathed on them, pulling the fear right out of their lungs, because you can’t live on fear. Instead, Jesus filled them with the Holy Spirit, that which gives us life. And having given them new life, Jesus then gives them there next assignment, their final one, I guess. He says, “Just as the Father sent me, so I am sending you. Go out forgive the sins of those who need forgiveness; retain the sins of those who need their sins retained.” Just as Jesus settles their hearts and gives them what they need for life, he sends them out into the world to give the people of the world what they need for life. Some need their sins forgiven…others need their sins retained.
I used to get mad at the idea of some sins being forgiven and others being retain, meaning forgiveness is withheld, and to be honest, I still do a lot of times, but then I heard a story from one of my pastors. A pastor of mine once told me a story where, as I understand it, she retained the sins of another, withholding forgiveness. As the story goes, she was on mission trip with a bunch of high school youth, hundreds of miles away from home. The rules for the trip were pretty standard for a church trip, no drinking, no drugs, no sexual activity. If the rules were broken, those involved would be sent home at their parent’s expense. On the last day of the trip, right before they were about to head home, one high schooler was caught smoking marijuana. Apparently, throughout the trip, this particular youth had been particularly rebellious, constantly pushing and bending the rules just far enough to irritate but not far enough to punish. That is, until he got caught with drugs. Once he got caught, I imagine he was immediately remorseful and apologetic, pleading with the pastor not to send him home at his parent’s expense. But something stirred up this pastor’s spirit, telling her that simple forgiveness wouldn’t cut it this time. So she brought him to the bus station amidst yells and tears, bought him an expensive ticket home, and then returned back to the group, only jump in a van and head home herself. The mission group ended up beating the young man home by multiple hours. A couple of vans move across country much faster than a Greyhound bus.
The pastor didn’t see this young man for a long time after that. A wall of anger and resentment had been built between them, and she shed many tears wondering if she had made the right decision. About two or three years later, sitting in her office, she gets a knock at the door and in walks this young man, wearing his Navy uniform. He then goes on to thank her for what she did that day she left him at the bus station. It was the first time anyone had really showed him the consequences of his actions, and it was that moment that sparked a new fire within him to straighten out his life. Sometimes people simply need their sins forgiven and sometimes people need their sin retained in order to find new life.
Jesus breathed on them, pulling the fear right out of them, gave them what they needed to live, the Holy Spirit, and then he sent them out into the world, to give the people of the world what they need to live.
Now, take in another breath. Ahh….life. That is what this text is about, finding what you need so that you might begin to live.
After all this happens, in comes Thomas, stumbling through the door, like the younger brother sent out into the rain to be on the look-out for danger, and suddenly, poof, Jesus is gone, having slipped back through the cracks in the wall. Now if you’ve ever walked into a room and it suddenly gets quiet, with everyone’s face turned towards you, then you probably know how Thomas felt. “Uhh….what’d I miss?” he couldn’t help but say. “We have seen the Lord!” the disciples proclaim. And it was about as convincing as it was when Mary made the same proclamation a couple hours earlier. Sorry, but it is not a very convincing line.
And so Thomas says what the disciples were probably thinking when Mary first said those words. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” It is hard to convince someone of God’s presence. Often they have to experience it for themselves. And so, a week later, as he did with the other disciples, Jesus slips in underneath the door bringing peace and then he gives Thomas what he needs so that he might go have life and have it abundantly. He holds out his hands and reveals his wounded side, all for Thomas to explore. With one hand wrapped around Jesus’ spleen and one finger piercing Jesus’ palm, Thomas’ lungs inflate with the Holy Spirit and he can say nothing more but “My Lord, and my God.”
It is hard to convince someone of God’s presence. Often times, they have to experience it for themselves. This past week, I had the great honor to speak with one of the world’s wisest. Though her heart has only been beating for fourteen short years, the wisdom that beats inside of her seems to have been marinating in the world for about ninety-eight. Megan is about to be confirmed at her church in a couple of weeks, but before that could happen she had to face the infamous confirmation interview with one of the pastors. She and I were chatting, going over subjects like baptism, communion, and what it means to be confirmed. Everything seemed just fine, until the conversation took a quick turn and she said, “You know actually, a lot of this stuff is hard to believe and I don’t really know what to do about it. We say that God takes care of people, but what about the woman across the street who as two young children and was diagnosed with cancer. Why do only some seem to be taken care of, while others appear abandoned?” In her deep wisdom, she named all those questions that keep the rest of us awake at night. In that moment, truth, in a world full of lies, pierced into the conversation and, from where I was standing, it brought with it a bag full of life. From that point on, the conversation buzzed as passion mixed with fear, curiosity collided with humor, and as desperation danced with hope. And if you ask me, the moment she confessed her doubts about God was the very moment God showed up in the conversation bringing peace and new life. No questions were answered that night and no certainty in God was not found. But it was her own confession, like Thomas, saying “I don’t know that I can believe this. I need more. I need to see it, I need to touch.” It was her own confession that ignited God’s presence, and it was her own confession that I hope gave her a taste of the Holy Spirit, so that she might keep chasing after and seeking the God we so desperately crave. It is hard to convince someone of God’s presence. Often times, they have to experience it for themselves.
Take another breath.
Jesus says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” In penning these words, I don’t think the author of John’s gospel means that those who believe without seeing are the ones who get it right. Or are the winners, or those whom God smiles upon and favors. No, that can’t be it, because remember with God, everything is backwards. Wine never runs out, dead people don’t stay dead. This can’t be simply about believing in the unbelievable and then you win God’s blessing.
I think the author of John’s gospel writes this because blessed are those who can believe without seeing, because even believing when you can see it is hard. Thomas needed more than just sight, he needed to touch and feel around inside Jesus’ body before he could buy into any of this.
In the end, the author of John’s gospel turns his or her attention to us the reader, saying that these things were written so that we might come to believe in the God revealed in Jesus even though it is unbelievable. So when life isn’t what we thought it would be, and when fear and doubt begin to set it, we put our trust in what the author of John’s gospel has proclaimed – that God will slip under the door and surprise us giving us exactly what we need so that we might once again breathe in the Holy Spirit and dive right back into life. AMEN